Without question, the Michigan wildlife story of the spring has been “Lilly the Deer.” One Genesee County family’s crusade to keep their pet deer of five years has gained both state and national attention. In 2009 when circumstances led them to the choice, this anonymous family elected to take possession of the lone surviving fawn after its mother had been struck by an automobile.
For good reason, Michigan law prohibits the private possession of Michigan wildlife. As a result, when officials with the Michigan Department of Natural Resources Wildlife Division became aware of this family pet, it was legally incumbent upon them to resolve the matter.
The DNR’s attempt to separate Lilly from her owners fueled the objections of thousands via the internet. A petition on Change.org received over 16,000 signatures, and another on-line effort raised $2,500 to help offset legal fees. This public relations nightmare for the DNR was brought to a merciful end this past week when officials announced that pending the issuance of a permit, Lilly would be allowed to stay with her adoptive family.
For most of us who are hunters, anglers or otherwise spend extensive time in the outdoors, we understand the cruelty which can be found in the wild. For this reason, the prospect of the national media expending time worrying about the dispensation of a single white-tailed deer seemed to be symptomatic of a country which had lost its connection with the natural world. While all of this debate was going on, we “outdoorsy” types felt pretty good about ourselves as we snickered in disbelief at the breadth of this emotional reaction.
This past Saturday, however, my wife Carol and I encountered a circumstance where the issue of leaving helpless wildlife to fend for itself appeared to become less black and white. This encounter began at the conclusion of a late-afternoon fishing outing at our upper peninsula camp. Immediately after stepping out of the river, we startled a white-tail fawn bedded down next to the river and likely within 100 feet of our cabin.
Okay, no big deal. We were sure that the fawn’s mother was nearby and that they would be reunited momentarily. A short while after wader removal and the refiling of fishing equipment, I walked halfway across our footbridge only to notice that the fawn had moved less than 20 yards from its original point of disturbance. The fawn’s curiosity lasted for several more minutes before finally departing for what we were sure would be the final time.
As the evening progressed, however, we continued to hear periodic movement in the brush surrounding the cabin, leading us to believe that the fawn remained nearby. While I’m no biologist, I do know enough about deer behavior to know that coming across a seemingly untended fawn is no reason to assume that the doe has met with an untimely demise. It is not uncommon for does to leave their fawns safely bedded close-by during those early weeks of development and tend to them only as needed.
Nonetheless, when we saw the fawn bedded down in the same stream-side location the following morning my mind did begin to race with multiple scenarios, all of which were based upon the irrational assumption that the fawn had, in fact, been orphaned. With the abundance of wild lands nearby, why would a doe select a fawn bedding area so close to human activity such as a cabin or a footbridge? If the doe were tending the fawn, wouldn’t the previous day’s level of human encounter been enough to cause an overnight relocation?
Although at no time did we give consideration to inserting ourselves into this natural process, I was struck with a bit of a Lilly-epiphany. In spite of our rational relationship with the outdoor world, there appears to be a human need for intervention on behalf of seemingly helpless wildlife. After all, we’re just now coming off of the road-crossing season during a year when I saw more than a few drivers parked on the shoulder of a road as they provided assistance to a turtle which appeared to be stalled at the centerline.
That next morning as I loaded our truck for our departure home, I tried not to look at the bedded fawn as I crossed the footbridge. I could, however, feel it watch me during each and every passing. In spite of all of my internal self assurances that the doe was still nearby and that this is the “way of the wild,” for the briefest moment I could imagine how a situation such as Lilly’s could happen in the face of incredible circumstances.
I suspect that when we return to our cabin in five days the fawn will have moved on. If not, you at least have my solemn pledge that we will not begin the fawn-naming process.